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The Hobbit - J.R.R. Tolkien, J.R.R. Tolkien What can I say? I'm a sucker for epic fantasy that tells of a man's (well, Hobbit's) mythic journey from womblike comfort and immaturity, through great danger and unknowing, and toward individuation and adulthood. Tolkien really is a master of depicting the manly journey toward self-actualization, isn't he? Somewhere, Joseph Campbell and Karl Jung smile every time a new reader picks up The Hobbit. And I don't blame them. The Hobbit sometimes reads like the Star Wars myth played out in our own galaxy a long, long time ago...

Tolkien the Beowulf scholar mixes in a healthy dose of his favorite Anglo Saxon myth. Bilbo's self-introduction to Smaug the straight-out-of-Beowulf talking dragon channels Beowulf:

SMAUG: "Who are you and where do you come from, may I ask?"

BILBO: "You may indeed! I come from under the hill, and under the hills and over the hills my paths led. And through the air. I am he that walks unseen.... I am the clue-finder, the web-cutter, the stinging fly. I was chosen for the lucky number.... I am he that buries his friends alive and drowns them and draws them alive again from the water.... I am the friend of bears and the guest of eagles. I am Ringwinner and Luckwearer; and I am Barrel-rider."

Now that's confidence! You can almost smell the ancient Anglo Saxon testosterone oozing out of the formerly reticent Hobbit. Bilbo spends the entire story growing into the hero role, gradually living up to Gandalf's high (deterministic?) opinion of him.

My only real complaint with The Hobbit? The simplistic life lessons. The lesson learned during the scouting of caves for shelter made me cringe:

GANDALF: "Have you thoroughly explored [the cave]?"

FILI AND KILI: "Yes, yes!... It isn't all that big, and it does not go far back."

That, of course, is the dangerous part about caves: you don't know how far they go back, sometimes, or where a passage behind may lead to, or what is waiting for you inside.

Though the novel's central point is a moral one--the danger of greedy behavior--I can't think of another instance outside of this cave episode where Tolkien uses such a heavy hand in making a point. The Hobbit's so good otherwise, however, that I'd be foolish to let a sentence or two taint my overall experience. The riddle match between Bilbo and Gollum; the battle between Hobbit, Dwarves, and a colony of massive spiders; the confrontation between Bilbo and Smaug in the treasure room; Beorn's menagerie of amazingly domesticated animals--the list of imaginative and fun events, settings and characters is a long one.

Finally, there's Tolkien's/Bilbo's ambivalent feelings about war:

Victory after all, I suppose! Well, it seems a very gloomy business.

Even with the victorious end, the violent means used to attain "victory" leave Bilbo cold. And why wouldn't Bilbo disdain war? Tolkien had survived his stint as a soldier in World War One, and experienced firsthand the carnage and peril connected with fear and greed on national and global scales. Tolkien and Bilbo--two weary veterans disenchanted with the enterprise of war-making. I like them both.

A great read! Now it's up to Peter Jackson to do the book justice with his two-part film interpretation. Based on his work with Lord of the Rings, I like his chances.